As evidence of the decline of religious observance in America continues to mount even as cultural and political divisions become more intense and pervasive, a very old fear has arisen again. It is that in a thoroughly secularized society, politics will begin to take on some of the absolutist features normally associated with religious claims of possessing ultimate truth.
For many years analysts have wondered if the savage nature of totalitarian movements of the left and right was owed to their occupation of metaphysical ground once held by supernatural religion. And there’s no question that both the classless, stateless society imagined by Marx as waiting for the human race at the end of history, and the Aryan Valhalla dreamed of by the Nazis for their own “master race,” were in appeal — if not intention — secular replicas of the Kingdom of God.
So it’s not surprising that Andrew Sullivan, in an Easter essay that begins with an insightful and moving tribute to his own inveterate Catholicism, enters the same dark woods of fear about politics raised to the level of religion:
[Religion] is about removing oneself from life while still living it: a pause, a grace-note, a moment when nothing is getting done. It is good to get out of the addled brain for a while, to live in the soul and the body alone. …
What we’re witnessing, it seems to me, is not a collapse in the religious impulse as such. The need to transcend, to find meaning, and purpose, is eternal for humans. What we’re witnessing is what happens when politics replaces or becomes a form of religion.
But out of apparent exasperation with all sorts of misplaced absolutes, Sullivan sets up an equivalence with which I cannot agree:
The fusion of Evangelical Christianity with the Republican Party blasphemously climaxed in the Trump cult. Among the Trump banners and a Confederate flags in the crowd that invaded the Capitol on January 6 was a flurry of wooden crosses. And in wokeness, the younger generation are quite obviously replicating previous religious movements in America. Look at the zeal in their eyes, the relentless search for heresy, the ostracization of sinners, the mass confessions of iniquity, and the need to “do the work” every day to bring about the Kingdom of Anti-Racism.
Yes, secular progressive causes from “wokeness” to public health to voting rights are fed by inherent human longings for self-improvement, righteousness, solidarity, and progress itself. There are overzealous and censorious social justice advocates just as there are overzealous librarians who are censorious about noise and overzealous chefs who are censorious about nutrition and table-scapes (though the collateral damage to their “victims” is obviously more innocent). Perhaps the “woke” are filling holes in their souls once filled by faith, and are engaged in crusades that lead to campus warfare rather than to Jerusalem. But by and large they do not profess that their certainties came down from heaven on tablets of stone, or that by smiting their enemies hip and thigh they are saving their souls. And that matters.
What has been most dangerous about the Christian right before and after it succumbed to the “Trump cult” was that its prophets had so thoroughly confused the sacred and the profane that it made a habit of deifying mere secular concerns. I once had rural relatives who refused to observe daylight saving time because standard time was “God’s time.” Anything traditional was hallowed. And in the Church of the Day Before Yesterday, the cultural mores of 1950s middle-class America displaced the Christian gospel, making “family values” — meaning Dad as patriarch and Mom as reproductive vessel and homemaker and, in general, women and gay people and minorities quiet and knowing their place — the keys to the Kingdom. That the whole movement culminated in celebration of the ur-heathen Donald Trump as national savior showed how perverse the whole enterprise had become.
So give me a thousand “woke” young militants over a single man in a pulpit proclaiming anyone’s — much less Trump’s — reelection as essential to the salvation of the human race. For that matter, I’d much prefer grim and censorious secularists to any Christian left that would sanctify political goals I happen to share. Politicized religion can spoil both politics and religion, which is why the American tradition of separation of church and state is so essential to religious as well as civic freedom. As Sullivan rightly says: “It took centuries for Christianity to … reject earthly power as a distraction from what really matters, what really lasts. It would be a terrible shame if America threw that shimmering inheritance away.”
This Easter I am worshipping my risen Lord and Savior with not a bit of resentment of those who find meaning in secular pursuits or in the watery spirituality of the 21st century. I will even endeavor to maintain fellowship with Christians who seem to worship an angry God and look forward to a paradise that bears a great resemblance to a gated retirement community in Florida. And I will pray that even if our differences grow more bitter and unforgiving, we will never confuse culture war with holy war, or elections with the Eschaton.